Exploring the Works of J.R. Carpenter
J.R. Carpenter is a self-described “Canadian artist, writer and maker of maps, zines, books, poems, fiction, non-fiction and non-linear hypermedia narratives” (Carpenter, J.R. Carpenter || Bio). She started her foray into electronic literature in 1995 with an HTML project titled Fishes and Flying Things. Since this first work, Carpenter expanded her portfolio of electronic works to include not only HTML works, but more dynamic elements like scripts and videos. Throughout these works however, one can find a unifying theme. Carpenter uses geographic, cartographic, and location-aware elements to contrast and emphasize the personal, emotional themes in her hypermedia narratives.
Starting with one of her early works, Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls, we can see Carpenter exploring the forking paths of a non-linear narrative. It is an HTML and image-driven piece of electronic literature focusing on interpreting the female body as a landscape. In it, the female body is explored, metaphorically, using the language of geography and cartography. The interface is littered with maps and figures lifted from geology texts, civil engineering manuals, and other books (Carpenter, Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls | ELMCIP).
The reader is presented with a main menu of sorts where links to all the bits and pieces of this work are presented at once, then allowing the user to pick one and explore from there. This non-linearity allows a form of exploration influenced by the Choose Your Own Adventure books (Carpenter, Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls | ELMCIP). At the same time, the subject matter lends itself extremely well to this exploration: a personal narrative of a female exploring her body mingles well with the idea of landscapes and cartography, a more literal, real-world exploration. The metaphors used by Carpenter juxtapose intensely personal descriptions of a woman’s body with geographical descriptions bordering on sterile in tone. An example of this can be seen in the work’s “groin.html” page:
The sea led her tongue across me and wore me down in my holder and followed me home to the Valley, where the shoreline is long, and notably irregular; where the tide rushes into the Bay of Fundy like fire in the wake of an earthquake, like blood into the groin of a girl. (Carpenter, J.R. Carpenter || Mythologies and Landforms of Little Girls)
Initially, this passage’s imagery strikes vivid imagery of tongues and such, but then the tone is swapped for something a lot more sterile – irregular shorelines. Subsequently, the reader is knocked back into intense metaphors of earthquakes and fires, finally letting us realize that Carpenter was discussing menstruation. The passage is then followed by a detailed image of a map with a red flourish symbolizing the blood. The textual metaphors, along with the imagery, show the blending of personal topics with dry, geographic themes.
These snippets of stories and snapshots of people’s lives are complemented by a side panel of clickable doors and windows, each opening a new window when clicked. These reveal a collection of videos shot by Carpenter in her alleyway. Each video clip shows a different aspect of her alleyway, and gives the reader further insight into the poem’s sections. The tone of the clips is very dry and emotionless, mostly comprising of close-ups of mundane objects such as fences, mattresses, and curtains. This contrasts well with the poem, which is a very lively narrative.
For example, in the third section of the poem, Carpenter discusses how “each apartment’s gallery / trains a curious / opera glass eye / upon its neighbouring loge” (Carpenter, J.R. Carpenter || Entre Ville). This is followed by simple imagery of a gurgling sound by a pool, and then a more human look at a Frenchman playing his trumpet. So from this section, the portion that is placed in a video is the gurgling of the pool. Between the people staring into each other’s apartments, the Frenchman, and the gurgling pool, by far the least engaging is the one that makes it into the video clip.
This work is extremely personal in the sense that it really does give us a first-hand account of what it’s like to live in the author’s neighborhood. Not only does she textually describe the typical events of her back alleyway, but she gives us actual moving imagery to further the immersion. It is very important to note, however, the wide gap in tone between the two sets. The poem tells us the stories of people and how they interact, meanwhile the videos are mostly just quick views of inanimate objects and set-pieces described in the poem. This contrast between the two allows Carpenter to convey the idea of living in her Montreal neighborhood by providing the reader with both personal facets and a dry, muted look at mundane imagery.
Carpenter provides us with a certain duality of tone that is quite rare. She walks a fine line between personal narratives and purposefully sterile and mundane references to geography and descriptions of physical spaces. This style allows her to create poignant contrasts between different aspects of her story: accentuating the personal by placing it next to the ordinary. From the cartographic adventures and metaphors of the female body, to the somber alleyway seemingly contradicting itself by brimming with activity, Carpenter’s imagery creates a unique dynamic.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Carpenter, J.R. J.R. Carpenter || Entre Ville. 2006. 9 May 2012.
—. J.R. Carpenter || Bio. n.d. 8 May 2012.
—. J.R. CARPENTER || Introduction to Electronic Literature. n.d. 8 May 2012.
—. J.R. Carpenter || Mythologies and Landforms of Little Girls. 1996. 8 May 2012.
—. Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls | ELMCIP. n.d. 9 May 2012.